A Journal of the Plague Year 2021–chapter 236

Support the occupied factories!

Sunday, October 31

I have not seen Wes Anderson’s new movie, The French Dispatch (available only in theaters), but I look forward to doing so. Centered on a fictional but nonetheless familiar magazine based in Paris and greatly resembling The New Yorker, the film has drawn glowing notices in the Times and—surprise, surprise—The New Yorker. The flick consists of four narratives—one featuring a reporter, another considering an imprisoned painter, another looking at life via the eyes of a James Baldwin-like writer, and finally, one focusing on a 1968 Paris Spring student firebrand.

Anderson is perhaps the most literature-influenced film director since Jean-Luc Godard. His previous movie The Grand Budapest Hotel drew inspiration from the work of once-popular and now largely forgotten novelist Stefan Zweig. This time around, Anderson has reportedly instructed his actors—including such regulars as Owen Wilson and Bill Murray along with the suddenly ubiquitous Lea Seydoux—to check out the writings of Mavis Gallant, a Paris-based New Yorker writer of yore.

But why? Gallant certainly knew her way around a stylus; her Paris-scribbled short stories are impressive even if they focus on such uninspiring protagonists as a former German POW, a nose-to-the-grindstone Riviera hotelkeeper, and a hard-pressed art dealer. She also penned very lengthy dispatches about the 1968 events that ran as a two-part feature in The New Yorker. These are likely what Anderson had in mind when advising his cast. And there’s where the problem lies: The jottings capture the flavor of events but give us little more. 

So what did Gallant make of 1968’s happenings? It’s not altogether clear.  Gallant’s “The Events in May: A Paris Notebook” adopts the form of a diary, with entries focusing on the garbage in the streets, food shopping and shortages, disruptions of daily life, the looks of the protesters and of the Gaullist counter-demonstrators, radio news reports, her own dreams, and brief conversations held with a range of friends and frenemies. 

She is stingy with her compliments. “Why do they keep on about Marcuse? Except for Z.’s dentist friend, no one even knows who he is,” she kvetches. “How can you talk about the Spanish Civil War to people who don’t even know what happened in 1958, or 1961, or what the O.A S. was about?” she whines.

But if she finds the student protesters unwashed and uninformed, the pro-de Gaulle counter-protesters are even less admirable. A vast May 30, Champs-Élysées-filling right-wing crowd has only summoned the courage to turn out, she believes, because the French army now has tanks and troops surrounding Paris.

“I am acutely unhappy at the slogans I am hearing: ‘La France aux français,’La police avec nous.’ I find this ugly. When I heard the students last week shouting ‘Nous sommes tous des juifs allemands!’ I thought they were speaking to their parents. Today the parents answer: ‘La France aux français.’” 

At their rallies, the young folks were idealistic; these revanchists are repellent. “I liked those kids. They were generous, and they were very brave. And when they shouted a slogan they were always asking for some sort of justice, usually for someone else. What is generous about ‘La police avec nous’?” Afterwards, Gallant only regains her equilibrium via “an enormous dinner with floods of wine.”

In the end, the writer offers no real stock-taking of the May events and their consequences. There is, she says, “No explosion de joie, as papers suddenly have it—just depressed feeling, as after an illness.” News reports convey the notion that the whole thing had been nothing but a game. As if by magic, the gasoline stations suddenly have plenty of petrol, the shops have lots of food and once-scarce sugar, and an “enormous tricolor is hung from the top of the Arc de Triomphe—[the] flag usually kept for July 14th and important state occasions.”

People ask themselves: What has been gained exactly? The “tone of conversations is relief, bewilderment, disappointment, fatigue. It is like the feeling after a miscarriage—instant thanksgiving that the pain has ceased, plus the feeling of zero because it was all for nothing.” 

And that’s about all Gallant has to offer in the way of evaluation. And yet May of 1968–with its factory occupations, three-week General Strike involving 10 million people, and near overthrow of Charles de Gaulle—lives on as a stirring inspiration to progressives: “be reasonable—demand the impossible,” as one Paris graffito had it. Perhaps Mavis was simply too exhausted to deliver much more than she did.

Dinner: Pasta e ceci and a green salad.

Entertainment: Britbox’ policier The Long Call.

A Journal of the Plague Year 2020–chapter 84

Stefan Zweig (standing) with his brother Alfred, around 1900.

Wednesday, June 3 

Tomorrow, it’ll be 13 weeks since we left New York City for our East Hampton pandemic retreat.

Without jobs or even solid gigs, it may have been mostly habit that held us to the city. There were times when we put a bit of effort into cultural pursuits—hearing jazz or classical performances, visits to museums, jaunts to particular shops where we often just looked at stuff without buying. Other times, we just hung out, enjoying the vibe. Now, Gotham may never again be what it was. To return there may be like subjecting oneself to the memory of a lost world. 

New York was never to me the near-paradise conjured by Stefan Zweig in his memoir of pre-World War I Vienna, The World of Yesterday. But the feeling of a lost world may be somewhat similar. Zweig—a highly popular writer in his time if not so well remembered today—describes that Hapsburg Empire capital as a center of music and learning, a place where he became acquainted with cultural luminaries ranging from Rainer Maria Rilke to his friend and fellow writer Romain Rolland. Then came World War I and, all too soon, the Nazis. 

Zweig, who had thought of himself less as an Austrian than as a citizen of Europe, fled to London, New York,  and ultimately to South America, where despair led to suicide. He wrote that “the past was done for, work achieved was in ruins, Europe, our home, to which we had dedicated ourselves had suffered a destruction that would extend far beyond our life. Something new, a new world began, but how many hells, how many purgatories had to be crossed before it could be reached!”

In a vandalized New York, broken glass can be swept up and windows replaced. Even burned buildings can be reconstructed. What worries me more are the small institutions that could very well become casualties of the current catastrophe. And these—not Dunkin’ Donuts but the intimate Jack’s Coffee or even the very hip Think Coffee—are what make New York what it is. I was glad to hear that Small’s, the tiny West Village jazz club, was sponsoring some streaming concerts in the next days. That seemed a sign that the club, and its nearby sibling Mezzrow, sees itself as having a future life.

Food halls like Essex Market on the Lower East Side are likely to suffer. That mid-size emporium is made up of many independent vendors including sellers of Italian and Latin grub, cheese, seafood, and baked goods.

Dozens of small art galleries could well disappear. And if the citizenry is poorer and global tourism put on hold, even much larger cultural institutions could be threatened. Does the avant-garde New Museum have an endowment large enough to weather the current storm?

Optimists will say that, no matter how it changes, New York will always be New York. People and places disappear, but the essence remains. 

Another memoir of a vanished world is Dan Wakefield’s New York in the Fifties. That author ends on a wistful note, cognizant of the many unwelcome changes that have come since he departed the city in the early 1960s. Yet he concludes with a sentimental poem about New York by the radical John Reed: “Who that has known thee but shall burn//In exile till he come again….”

On a less elevated note, Peapod made its food delivery today at around 6 p.m. Of the 43 items we ordered they delivered 29–and no receipt to tell us how much we were charged. Still no toilet paper, of course, and no mushrooms, sugar snap peas, walnuts, or garlic. Does our $20 tip seem warranted?

Dinner: Spaghetti with fried eggs, green salad.

Entertainment: More episodes of the Belgian policier The Break